BBC SSO: Christmas Oratorio, City Hall, Glasgow

Michael Tumelty

Five stars

I HAPPEN to know, because many listeners shared their views, that for a great number who attended the BBC SSO’s performance of Bach’s Christmas Oratorio on Thursday, broadcast live in the afternoon, their experience was one of unadulterated joy. Throughout its 80 years, and certainly in the last 32 years, during which I’ve been covering the band regularly, the SSO has few rivals in bringing the music off the page as though freshly-minted.

And that’s what they did, in alliance with David Hill’s glorious BBC Singers, a team of soloists frankly to die for, continuo and organ playing that came from heaven, trumpet playing, spearheaded by Hedley Benson, that came from the stars, a narrative that was as pellucid in its flow as it was concise in its telling, and a sense of pacing that encapsulated the fundamentals of momentum without once compromising the steady flow of the music. This was not just the SSO’s first Christmas Oratorio: it was, as a complete package, one of the organisation’s towering artistic achievements.

And oh, those soloists, with Rosemary Joshua’s soprano-wisdom informing her every phrase, the great Jennifer Johnston’s ultra-creamy, dark-chocolate alto melting hearts to the right and left, and the young powerhouse bass Benjamin Appl pulsating character into every sound uttered by his glorious voice. And then there was the supreme Evangelist of James Gilchrist, whose super-light tenor enunciated every single word with flawless clarity; and he added all five tenor numbers, left loose by the indisposed Ben Johnson, to his already-colossal workload. The BBC Singers have never been more subtle, and David Hill’s conducting was a bullseye job in sheer style.